John Carson Albohm remembers that a few months after he was hired to be Alexandria's school superintendent 14 years ago, he attended a football game at George Washington High School stadium.
"It was September, 1963," Albohm recalled in an interview recently. "I was in the stadium and I saw some lights over to one side, about a quarter of a mile away.
"I said to my friend sitting next to me. 'What are those lights over there?' My friend told me, 'Those are the lights at the Parker Gray football game.' (At that time, Parker Gray was the high school for Alexandria black students.)
"I said to him, 'You mean they're only there because they're black? I'm going to put those lights out.' and I did."
Albohm, 64, will retire as superintendent at the end of this month. He has been a school superintendent, both in Alexandria and elsewhere, for the past 5 years.
His replacement as head of the Alexandria school system is expected to be announced today.
Albohm said he was not hired by Alexandria specifically to complete school desegregation, but he practically will be most remembered as the man who orchestrated the desegregation in a voluntary and orderly manner.
Alexandria carried out a secondary school desegregated elementary schools in 1973. In the past school year Alexandria became the first Washington suburb to have black student slightly outnumering whites. The school system also has a large percentage of foreign-born students.
"I was politically and philosophically opposed to massive resistance (Virginia's early respinse to court-ordered school desegregation)." said Albohm, a tall, outspoken man with a low, gravely voice. "I knew Alexandria was a wide-ranging community, and I felt it would respond to social change in an orderly manner.
he desired response was achieved, he said, by "attempting to set a tone that would gain the confidence of black and white teachers and parents.
When he came, he said he almost immediately urged that the segregated teacher associations merged, and that summer school, recreation activities, and night schools be open to all children - steps that long since have been accomplished.
Albohm said he built up credibility by going to PTA meetings, black churches, service clubs and the white community almost continuously. "Fourteen years later, (Jimmy) Carter did the same thing," Albohm said, smiling. "He got visibility. His credibility is based on visibility. I did it, and the feedback to the (school) board was that I was a hard worker."
The superintendent grew up in Cumberland, Md. He said he and his family considered Alexandria "the gateway to the South - a place where the climate was hot and the people were very Southern." It was those impressions he brought to the city with him in 1963.
When he arived, he said one of the first things he was told was that the city wanted to keep desegregation of the schools out of the courts. Officials wanted the direction of the schools kept in the hands of the school board and the city government.
The city still was reeling from a court case it had lost in 1959, when a U.S. court judges barred racial discrimination in the assignment of pupils to the public schools. Fourteen black children had applied to the school board for admission to white schools, but had been turned down by the board.
"The city had spent a lot of money, and a lot of the power structure was behind it (the court fight) because they didn't want blacks flooding the schools." Albohm said about the 1959 case. "A local man (Judge Albert V. Bryan Sr.) rled this, and it shocked many people. They (the power structure) didn't want to go to the courts again."
Enter Albohm, who had been a superintendent in Redgefield, N.J., New London, Conn., and just before coming to Alexandria. York Pa., where there were blacks in the public school system and "we never had a fit over it." Albohm said.
Alexandria was experiencing real estate growth and was close to Washington, and both helped contribute to a changing school system, Albohm said he believes.
"I'd have failed miserably if I'd been anywhere but Alexandri. I'd have been run out of town," he said. "It is unwise financially to oppose social change. No one would have invested money in the citry anless there had been racial and political peace. Strife does not attract big money."
Last Saturday was Recognition Day in Alexandri for "Dr. John," as he was called affectionately at a reception and program given in his honor Saturday night at T.C. Williams High School. About 500 persons attended.
The setting for the reception was like an old-fashioned senior prom, with white streamers, a string quintet and a small orchestra. At the program, held in the newly-named John C. Albohm Auditorium, the stage band played "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," the choir sand "America the Beautiful," and a film called "The Promise Fulfilled" was shown. outlining the positive aspects of the Alexandria School system.
Norman Draper, former president of the Alexandria PTA Council, noted that Albohm had the knack for "making you fell you always got what you wanted," even if it wasn't what one first had in mind, he said.
Albohm was given a portrait of himself, a lifetime membership in the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, a three-week trip to Germany (his ancestral home), and two bound volumes of letters from friends, including a letter from former President Gerald Ford. A $15,000 scholarship trust will be set up in Albohm's name, and organizer Norman Schrott said he expects more donations.
Albohm laughing, said about the volumes of letters: "I'm sure there's some you don't have in there."
For while he generally was applauded for the way he directed the schools, there also was criticism.
One of the leaders of an antibusing group that existed several years ago said he felt Albohm "turned the system upside down before the courts ordered it." A black former member of the City Council called for Albohm's dismissal in 1971. He critized Albohm's approach to disruptive students and said the system failed to do a good job teaching reading.
"I helped bring people together." Albohm said emphatically. "Of course there are some people who say, 'the son of a b . . . divided people," but they're a small number."